Palimpsests and hidden texts

Origen’s Hexapla

This fragment of sheepskin parchment from the Taylor-Schechter Cairo Genizah Collection is a palimpsest. A medieval Jewish scribe has washed or scraped the parchment surface, replacing it with a new text in Hebrew – a collection of liturgical poems by one of the greatest and most prolific Jewish poets of Late Antiquity, Yannai. This in itself is a significant discovery, since very few of Yannai’s poems had, before the discovery of this and other similar manuscripts in the Genizah, been preserved. But the earliest scholars to work on the fragment were surprised to discover that the Jewish scribe had preserved a remarkably early and rare Greek text underneath.

Beneath the Hebrew script, upside-down in relation to it, a closely written Greek script is still visible, arranged in a number of clearly defined columns. The original leaves — much bigger than the current one, which was cut down for the Jewish scribe’s purposes – would have had six columns across the page, since this leaf contains part of the Christian scholar Origen’s early critical work on the Greek Bible, the Hexapla (‘Six Columns’), one of only two pieces of the famous lost work to be preserved anywhere. This piece, which must have come from a magnificent edition of what would have been a very large codex, contains three of the original six columns, giving the Greek versions of Psalm 21 in the editions of Aquila, Symmachus and the Septuagint (the Jewish-Greek translation of the Bible). It is among the earliest manuscripts discovered in the Genizah and is probably to be dated to the 7th century CE.

MS T-S 12.182

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